Archive for the ‘Verdi’ Category

Rigoletto, or what Verdi and Marx have in common

November 28, 2011

To all those who care to read these impressions I owe an apology. Although I saw Rigoletto on October 2, 2011, demands of my own quotidian delayed the final touches on Rigoletto. Then, as I thought it was ready for upload, I had an encounter in the elevator with one of my neighbours whom I, from time to time, see at the opera. The following dialogue ensued.

OT: “Did you see Rigoletto?”

Neighbour: “Yes. A disaster.”

OT: “Oh, I actually liked it. What was that you did not like?”

Neighbour: “I mean the singing was good, but the staging…it was awful.

OT: “Hmh, actually, I found the staging most interesting. I was delighted.

Neighbour: “ Well, how many Rigolettos did you see?”

Before I got to count my former Rigolettos, which I reckon amount to probably two, one, or none, (I do not count audio recordings, fragments and arias)  the neighbour exited the elevator.

This Rigoletto is one of the most successful productions I have ever seen at the COC. It was originally staged for Chicago Lyric Opera in 2000.

Sometimes when I see a memorable production of an opera, the associative part of my brain starts shooting out random proverbial one-liners accumulated in my memory over, I do not want to say how many, decades of my current incarnation. 

When I left the opera house after Rigoletto, I jotted down three apparently disparate statements that came to mind. Here we go:  “When frog saw that horses get shoes she lift her foot too”, “Quod licet Iovi non licet bovi” and the third, one more contemporary and slightly more complex was, if I recall well, one of Marx’s thesis on Feuerbach. The sixth, I think. Translated from my mother tongue, as I recall, the lecture some four decades ago goes like this: “It is not the consciousness that determines the social being of the individuals, but rather, it is their social being that determines their consciousness. Perhaps in light of this association it is interesting to examine this Rigoletto.

 

The opening scene resembles a club lounge, one dimly lit and furnished in the style of P.G. Wodehouse’s famous Drones Club. Gathered are members of the nobility preoccupied with finding new forms of entertainment. Rigoletto is a jester, a private comedian whose livelihood is all about amusing an audience not always prepared for taking in a gentlemanly way a rough joke. So it happens that in ridiculing a nobleman inferior in rank to his boss, Rigoletto went too far for the taste of the receiving end. Rigoletto is cursed. An elaborate and cunning revenge was set in motion. The insulted marquis plotted to lure Rigoletto’s daughter into a love affair under the false pretense that he is a poor student. Rigoletto in a way expected that his daughter might be at risk and provided his maid with strict instructions to spare his daughter from the wrathful man. Rigoletto is outsmarted by the sophistication of a nobleman’s con game and by his gross oversight of what a small bribe could achieve with a low servant.

On the scale of consciousness we have a duke, his guests, Rigoletto, Rigoletto’s servant maid and Rigoletto’s daughter. In this “vanity fair”, the master of the revels  is of course the duke. As the social status goes down the ability to see through the thick screen of appearances diminishes proportionally. Rigoletto is in the middle of this spectrum as someone who, by seeing it all from the inside, should know better. In his social being Rigoletto is in like proportion a master and a servant, but does not quite belong to either end of the spectrum. Yet, he cannot assess either of his social roles. He is also stigmatized by physical deformity. In terms of the political correctness of his time he is not quite a valid human being. As master of his maid and a father he can only simulate superiority. He cannot overcome the fact that he is a servant, no matter how close a view he has of the lives of his masters. It is from the perspective of his social being that his narrow consciousness sets him on the devastating path in which a murder is seen as a just solution. The part of him which identifies with a master takes the charge and he arranges a hitman for a revenge killing. But all is in vain for a man who has lost his path in life and is selling his own soul for a livelihood. Everyone is corrupt, even the assassin. So instead of the duke he kills the first random person to come along , who just happens to be Rigoletto’s daughter. Rigoletto, carried away in savouring his revenge, wants to be the one who will dispose of the body of the duke. But when he hears the voice of the duke from a distance, he opens the sack he is carrying and in horror sees his dying daughter.

 

The consciousness determined by the social being came across as a strong flavour, brought to life in a masterful staging of this libretto. Humiliation of the outcast, cannot be dissolved if love and compassion are in short supply. With a lack of love and compassion one cannot overcome the limitations imposed by one’s social being without resorting to violence. And violence does not lead anywhere but to more violence. The singing and orchestra rendered smoothly. This is a production worth of visual recording and should be a mandatory field trip for those who aspire to advanced studies of public relations and management of human resources.

And now, dear readers, allow me to finish with another apology, this time to the wonderful team who performed Rigoletto this season at the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto.

And the credits go to:  David Lomeli (The Duke of Mantua), John Kriter (Borsa), Mireille Asselin (Cauntess Ceprano), Quinn Kelsey (Rigoletto), Adrian Kramer (Marullo), Alain Coulombe (Count Ceprano), Robert Pomakov (Count Monterone), Philip Ens (Sparafucile), Ekaterina Sadovnikova (Gilda), Megan Latham (Giovanna), Jacqueline Woodley (a page), Neil Craighead (an usher), Kendal Gladen (Maddalena), Conductor: Johanes Debus, Director: Christopher Alden, Set and Costume Designer: Michele Levine, Lighting designer: Duane Schuler.   

 

Aida, a story of war and peace

October 13, 2010

The vocal aspect of the Toronto 2010 Aida has been received with acclaim. No word of praise was spared for Sondra Radvanovsky as Aida, Rosario La Spina as Radames, Jill Grove as Amneris, Scott Hendricks as Amonasro, Phillip Ens as Ramfis, to mention only the main roles, and rightly so. I endorse them all wholeheartedly. After hearing Johannes Debus conducting the War and Peace and the Flying Dutchman here in Toronto, I recognize his firm, crisp and clean sound of orchestra with a distinct and developed sense of a moment for absolute and sudden silence, which adds so much to the dramatic and dynamic value. Both the vocal and instrumental sides of this Aida display the first-class musicianship any opera house can be proud of.

This Aida is faithful to the original score (I have read somewhere that the prelude was not included in the past in many productions, whereas this one starts with the prelude) and even Verdi’s original stage notes for Act Four were observed. There is, though, one surprise for the viewers. It does not happen in the “time of the Pharaohs” but is rather transposed to the context of the 60’s.

Unfortunately for Toronto, grave words were written in the media against this Aida for being set in a different context. Some members of the public were so aggravated that they went into tantrums uttering threats to withdraw their financial support if the Canadian Opera Company continues to…well, more or less… fail to put plywood pyramids on the stage and show Egyptian military that do not wear their combat skirts and sandals.

It strikes me that the story of Aida is not at all about Egypt or the Pharaohs, pyramids or elephants. It is about human beings and their inability to accept frustration of the heart’s desire without turning treacherous, envious, evil, and in the extreme, betraying military secrets. This opera too has at its core a spiritual conundrum for every human being who encounters such frustration that has no proper resolution in his or her life. The last words sung in this opera are: peace, peace, peace. Underneath the main plot line of forbidden and unrequited love is the second line of narration, which was depicted with fine sensibility and relates to the evils of violence and war. Profoundly symbolic was Danse Macabre, which depicted in only a few minutes the entire chronology of the war story with summary executions, vulturine, marauding and desensitized, victorious bacchanals, followed by the decoration for merit and the rise of hubris which burns everything sacred and virtuous in man. It appeared to me that only those who have first-hand experience of their home’s  being devastated by war can have such a clear understanding of the cycles of war on human nature.  For the masterful choreography, set design and direction the names of Ms. Laїla Diallo, Ms. Hildegard Bechtler and Mr. Tim Albery respectively ought to stand out in bold. 

Radames, an Egyptian army soldier, believes that the way to have his forbidden love with Aida, the enslaved princess of a hostile-country, is through rising in rank in his army to the commander of its troops in the war against Aida’s homeland. Amneris the Egyptian princess is in love with Radames and envies Aida’s love for him. Aida’s father takes advantage of her love for the officer of the hostile army for his own military plans. Aida, torn apart between irreconcilable loyalties, seduces her beloved into committing treason by negligence. Radames feels that he cannot defend his betrayal. He accepts his responsibility and chooses death. With him dies Aida while Amneris prays for peace.

While the first three acts were carrying the narrative riches of this multilayered story, the last two deliver dramatic emotions of loss and suffering.

 

The beauty of this Aida lies not only in its originality to depict a hall of the Egyptian king in Memphis as the situation room of a cabinet facing an impending act of war, or a private chambers of Princess Amneris, which includes a view of her walk-in closet, but also in the coherence and clarity of the new narrative. The perfectly intertwined choreography includes not only dances but the stage movements in general, behind a superb orchestral and vocal foreground. For the most part the costumes look fresh and original. My only doubt concerns Aida’s costume, which, although probably adequate for a POW, is to my taste an overstatement in humility. A slight alteration adjusted to flatter the physique of the singer (after all she is a princess and a beauty) may bring surprising improvement. The staging of this Aida contemplated many small details of scene movements and lighting, creating a very tightly knit gesamtkunstwerk, yet not crossing the fine line into overkill.

Oops, almost committed the injustice of not mentioning the superb sound of the chorus.

If this Aida is not captured on DVD it is going to be a tragic mistake.     

La Traviata, Madrid in the Thirties

May 18, 2010

Violetta: Norah Amsellem; Alfredo: José Bros, Giorgio Germont: Renato Bruson; Flora Bervoix: Itxaro Mentxaka, Annina: Maria Espada, Baron Dauphol: David Rubiera, Dr. Grenvill: Lorenzo Muzzi. Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Real, López-Cobos. Production: Pier Luigi Pizzi. Opus Arte.

 

This Traviata takes place in an Art Deco context of decadence, greased hair parted on the side, outfits a’là Gatsby and the presence of Fascist insignia. The opening scene reveals the interior parted into two rooms resembling the interior architecture in proportions suitable for the lobby of a railway station or some other space anticipating large congregations. The visual impression, which mostly reduces the colour palette to creamy white and black produces an environment which could be described as impersonalized, opulent and decadent. On the left side is Violetta’s boudoir with her private bathroom, and on the right is her salon where her party guests are indulging in sensual pleasures.

There is a detail which is controversial to my personal taste. It is the scene in the first act where we encounter a character, a guest at Violetta’s party, dressed in a military uniform, swastika on the forearm band, leather boots, etc. He sits on the floor with a woman, supposedly having a good time like everyone else. Of all men he is the only one sitting on the floor. This detail is dramatically unclear. Other than placing the event in a narrower time frame than can be accomplished by architecture and clothing he bears no relevance to this Traviata. These symbols are historically too raw and painful and far too charged with layers of meaning to be left as a casually thrown-in detail which bears no other meaning. The other controversial thing is why he is sitting on the floor. For a member of any uniformed force, when in uniform there is a code of conduct to be observed in public and private gatherings. Sitting on the floor at a party would not be a part of acceptable conduct. Perhaps having him sit on the floor was a value-charged statement by the director but it is not sufficiently clear and not well woven into the fabric of the story. In any event the golden rule of Stanislavski’s dramaturgy is that if there is a rifle hanging on a wall hook in the play, it has to be shooting in the play. Otherwise there is no place for the rifle on the wall in such a play. In this case this member of the Nazi army does not amount to anything more than a purposeless gun on the wall, which amounts to nothing more than flirting with heavily charged symbols.  And flirting with the Nazi insignia in art is a superficial and irresponsible act.

The second act takes place in an interior which resembles a Scandinavian furniture display room in white and a gorgeous shade of blue-tooth blue. The stage designer probably intended Bauhaus, but there is a scent of Ikea-like freshly furnished space far too clean in lines, that it actually does not invoke the targeted period.

The scene with the gypsy festivities and the matador’s dance and song is set in a bacchanal ambiance suitable for the orgy of a Roman Emperor. I would agree with some other commentators of this production that it fails to trigger the excitement and awe it meant to.

The details of the costumes are styled in proportion to the details of the set with a delicate touch in dressing Violetta and bringing up the beautiful body curves and youth of Norah Amsellem in the role of Violetta.

Ms. Amsellem, apart from being a gracious and beautiful young woman, is a good singer. What I miss in her portrayal of Violetta is passion, a feverish readiness to surrender. Her voice, although not incapable of nuance and from a technical standpoint well controlled and measured, lacks emotional depth and breadth. Her high notes are sharp and spiky but there is no fire in them. On occasions she is lagging in tempo and her expressiveness is controlled at the expense of the underlying emotion. Wait till the very end and you will see that Ms. Amsellem, though, is most gracious, emotional and sincere recipient of the applause. It is a treat to see her at bow.

Whoever was in charge of make-up for the role of Violetta deserves to be mentioned for a delicate task accomplished with excellence.

José Bros as Alfredo has carried out his role in singing and acting with and blended well in into the whole project. Renato Bruson in spite of his age and relying on a masterful technique has done equally well as father Germont.

Maria Espada as Annina is the best Annina in all the Traviatas I have ever heard or seen. Her radiant, fragile and vibrant bell-like quality of voice combined with a youthful persona gave a fresh appearance to this small and usually overshadowed role. Ms. Espada gave a delicate and touching quality to this young maid who helplessly watches the tailspin of a human tragedy unfolding in front of her eyes.

The orchestra under the conductor Jesus López Cobos from time to time seems to be carried away with their own show and too many times overrides the singers.  The overall sound is more suitable for a military brass band than a melodramatic plot such as La Traviata.

Love for sale – the story of Traviata

March 12, 2010

 

La Traviata was my first thoroughly explored opera. On the following pages I will share my impressions of several different versions, most of which were produced within the last decade. Half of them are traditional and the other half are modern, Zeitgeist, or so-called Regietheater, versions. Regietheater is a term that refers to a production in which the role of the director is creative in introducing contemporary elements, usually related to scene, décor, costumes, altering libretto instructions, and transposing the story into a new place and time, thus bringing the main idea closer to the contemporary spectators. Since video technology made it possible to preserve the images and reach much wider and less prejudicial audiences than the regular attendees of live performances, the popularity of this approach seems to be on a constant rise. Hurray!

The story of La Traviata is based on Alexandre Dumas’ famous romance novel “Lady with Camellias” which was inspired by a real-life mistress or courtesan and her premature death due to tuberculosis, or to use the popular euphemism, consumption. The story in short goes like this: beautiful. free-spirited. young woman Violetta lives showered with the attention of many wealthy, elderly men  eager to take pleasure in her youth and beauty, which they honour with material reward. She attends parties and other night life entertainment, and that is all she does, celebrating in her own way living in the here and now, by submitting herself to the life of sensual pleasures. At one such party she meets Alfredo, and the famous male-female chemistry does the rest. They are madly into each other without any inhibition. Violeta’s conflict lies in the entrapment of love: committing herself to one man to the exclusion of all other men. Alfredo has already made his commitment by building his life on traditional values: marriage, children, and family.

Based on some historical data the true story may as well be like this: Around 1840 there lived  Alphonsine Plessis who came to live in Paris for the reasons that may be further researched. Some sources suggest that Alexandre Dumas younger was one of those who enjoyed her company. Franz List, Wagner’s father-in-law was allegedly another of her admirer. She  died at the age of 22.  Alphonsine knew the laws of the world and despite  her tender age she understood very well that she is not entitled to a relationship based on love, being deeply on a path of selling her body and beauty for living.

Violetta and her Alfredo throw themselves into an intense, sensual affair. The reality comes knocking on Violetta’s door in the form of Alfredo’s father, who has practical concerns for his foolish son who went mad for a courtesan. He choses to negotiate the break-up with Violetta. He visits Violeta at her countryside home to beg her to let Alfredo go, telling her that Alfredo’s connection to her may ruin the family plans for other provident marital arrangements. Violetta is wounded to death. But she knows very well the laws, especially those unwritten. Bleeding the life force rapidly from that event on, she promises to the father of her beloved, that she will abandon his son Alfredo. She sacrifices her feelings, her love knowing quite well that in that world there is no place for such love.  She meets Alfredo by chance at one of the festivities, where he, believing in his mediocre self centered importance that she tossed him away, humiliates her publicly, insulting her carried away  by his selfish narrow-minded ignorance. Violetta’s health spirals down rapidly as she throws herself back into a whirlwind of the oblivion of the oldest trade she is into. Her illness progresses. Next we see is that she is dying. Before she leaves this world comes Alfredo with his father to honour her noble sacrifice.  Violetta dies.

A traditional production would follow this story with the strict adherence to the costumes, decor and mannerism of the period and to the literal letter of the libretto instructions, limiting itself to a better or worse level of mime. If the soprano diva is beautiful it is an asset and the difference between various productions is measured in the level of lavishness of the set, decor and costumes. Such a production has a limited maneuvering ground to elaborate the characters or the drama between the actors/singers. They usually sing standing beside each other while exchanging fatalistic statements. They often act as if engaged in declamation entrusted to the audience. The advantage of a traditional production is in the focus on singing and music as opposed to the artistic freedom of reshaping a message of the story in the language of décor, costumes, acting and scene. There are also mid-way attempts to retain some elements of the original set and throw in one or few elements of modern times. Such gimmicks hardly add anything more than a brief amusement to the spectators, which is a dangerous way to treat your audience. It does not yield lasting impressions and if not well woven into the tissue of the entire production backfires with the disapproval of critic and audience alike.

Strict adherence to the libretto and the original stage instructions prevents the universality of the theme from reaching audiences several centuries later. Esthetics change, appearances change, décor changes, and fashion changes. At the time it was composed you could buy for pennies the paintings sold today for millions of dollars…one has to be educated to catch all the fine lines that stem from the piece. To connect the audience with the drama, to have them recognize the opera’s theme in the world around them, it helps to cut through the distracting alien layers of odd costumes and the furniture you now see in films, museums or houses of very rich people. On the other hand, dressing the singers in jeans may not be enough to anchor the story in our world.

If the production team shuts its eyes and ears to these changes what is left is imitation. A modern production takes the liberty of altering the elements of the stage and gives a more contemporary appearance. In doing that it is essential to have a concept, an underlying idea, a clear picture of what you wish to say, and in doing so consistency helps, or at least it prevents the risk of a job half done.

The line between fine and too much

March 8, 2010

A year after Willy Decker’s La Traviata, Rolando Villazón sings in a traditional production in Los Angeles with Renée Fleming as Violetta. American native and darling, Renée Fleming, whose voice is often referred to as liquid gold had to have the best Alfredo of the day–Rolando Villazón, that is. It is obvious that Ms. Fleming studied and very intently prepared for her role. Maybe too intently.  She sings as if with a clear determination to add something new to this role. To any such aspiring artist commendable advice is given by the brilliant light-versed American poet, Ogden Nash, in a verse that goes something like this:  “Listen, Rembrandt, why don’t’ you add little red here…”.In other words, with less eagerness she could have done much better.  In his review for the Opera News, Ira Siff does not hesitate to call her efforts “gilding the lily”. So the result is a peculiar, dull, shallow and flat sound in many lower register vowels and too many excessive shrieks. Her vocal ability does not sustain her efforts. To put it gently, she approaches dangerously close to the borderline of kitsch. I heard Renée Fleming in a recital in Toronto several years ago, and ever since then I have been under the impression that she may run out of her voice. There is a sense of something precisely planned and calculated in her singing which induces anxiety in a listener.  Villazón was singing with all his might and lungs. The production, effervescent with luxurious costumes and a stage rich in detail, creates perhaps too much of a distracting commotion without adequately benefiting the final result, which raises the question: why would anyone bother making yet another lavish period production?

Mr. Brian Large who directed the video version could have spared us, the home audience, by editing out numerous interruptions of frantic, exaggerated applause.

Peter Mussbach on being and nothingness

March 5, 2010

Peter Mussbach’s Traviata on DVD, as performed in 2003 at the Aix-en-Provence festival promises on its cover the story of a death and love. That is what it delivers. And so much more.

While Willy Decker’s Traviata is the last breath in the joy of life, Peter Mussbach’s Traviata is one long last breath of death. Gracious Mireille Delunsch is the Violetta. Her lyrical voice of subdued expressiveness and a flavour of fragility convey this agony with searing emotional authenticity. Matthew Polenzani’s Alfredo is well nuanced in emotional spectrum and depth. His Alfredo feels almost as equally unfortunate as Violetta and only slightly less tragic remaining throughout, firmly centred in the role. Željko Lučić, my fellow compatriot from the non-existent Yugoslavia, gifted with a gorgeous voice of remarkable width and an echo of a cathedral bell, was an impressive father Germont thanks mostly to his vocal ability. It would be utterly mind-spinning had his acting be a little more fine-tuned. I cannot quite pinpoint what was imperfect there, maybe a little excess of intent was visible, but this comes under the category of hair-splitting.

There is a custom in some cultures that if a girl dies before she gets married she is buried in a wedding gown. Such funeral apparel is the only dress this Violetta wears. In fact she appears as already dead.  There is only one moment in this Traviata when Violetta appears alive, and that is when she meets the father Germont. This is the only time she is trying to negotiate something for herself in her earthly life, the only occasion when she for a moment she considers her life a reality. That is when she losses the only thing that matters to her. But, did she ever have it in the first place? Was it yet another illusion? Everything else before and after this moment of attempt to be in this world to claim her love, is either recollection of a nightmare life passing before her as if  she is a remote, detached observer from another world, or everything just fades away and becomes reduced to mere flashes of fluorescent light in the darkness.

The entire opera appears as one final prolonged look back at the life already gone in which there was nothing anyways, only some shadows and distant noises. This becomes strikingly obvious in the scene which takes place in the countryside home.  What in the libretto is suggested as a country house where Violetta and Alfredo enjoy their passionate love affair, Mr. Mussbach stages as Violetta’s lifeless body lying on the ground, face towards the floor, over which, as if he does not notice her, Alfredo sings his exaltation of redeeming love into a void emptiness . Was her love ever a possibility, regardless of her terminal illness, regardless of her past?

The cold empty black stage remains unchanged throughout. It is divided into front and back planes by a transparent black curtain. It is all one big nothing. The dynamic is created by intermittent film footage superimposed over the images of the story as it unfolds. The film depicts a road as an unambiguous symbol of a life path. Violetta’s life is a speedy highway trip through the rainy night. This life by night is from time to time seen through a rainy windshield from the position of a traveler in the hands of an invisible driver in an invisible vehicle. The road sometimes turns into a tunnel. Maybe it is the same tunnel in which another young woman, a real princess, met her death in the arms of her forbidden lover. There are other hints at fallen heroines of life depicted in this story. Some people recognize in Violetta’s hairstyle and dress hints at Marilyn Monroe. Life and fiction abound with inspiration for the theme of  the tragic fate of love without the blessing of social approval.

Throughout the performance the stage is lit with a somber light which does not shine but rather merely reveals the dark joyless shadows of equally dark and joyless people passing by Violeta only remotely. The line between illusions reality and hallucinations is blurred. It is all real and unreal at the same time. That is perhaps the greatest effect of this production.

The only time in which we see a crisp and refreshing light akin to sunlight is when long and painful agony ends.  

In spite of merciless reduction in colour and décor, this Traviata delivers this tragic story in flavours stronger and sharper than any other Traviata I have seen. 

The DVD should contain a warning for the emotionally infirm not to watch this production without access to the shoulder of a responsible and balanced adult.

La Traviata of Willy Decker

March 1, 2010

When the director’s name precedes the names of the greatest singers in a production, something extraordinary has happened. It will probably not be earlier than a hundred years from now that we see something so clean, dazzling and radical as Willy Decker’s La Traviata of the 2005 Salzburg Festival. The newly released program of the Metropolitan Opera NY prides itself in cloning this production now, five years later, with different singers and it is scheduled for the upcoming New Year’s Gala.

In many aspects this is a revolutionary performance that has changed the face of how opera may also be staged, bringing to life a broad specter of emotions and exploring to inconceivable depths the dramatic tensions of this deeply human drama. We are fortunate to be contemporaries of Willy Decker, who has approached libretto with a radical intervention.

The entire scene throughout all three acts consists of a bare white oval wall with the door on the left side, on the right side a simple, giant clock of a design such as is usually seen in railway stations. Along the entire length of the wall runs a built-in bench following the shape of the wall.  The seed of this simplicity can be traced back to the scene in act one of the 1994 Covent Garden production of La Traviata. But now it is reduced to the bare bones. A couple of simple Ikea couches,  floral drapes and a bottle of champagne are the only additional props.

The cast is perfect: Anna Netrebko as Violeta, Rolando Vilazzón as Alfredo, and excellent in the role of Alfredo’s father is Tomas Hampson. 

Exemplifying in this role the “living in the moment” lifestyle fully anchored in the character, Anna Netrebko becomes  Violeta with full physical and emotional presence, delivering her role in an unending series of emotionally charged and focused exchanges  with Alfredo, generating the unparalleled dramatic peaks rich in flavours and nuances. Such a Violeta is complemented by the superb singing and acting of Villazón, who upholds the drama revolving around Violeta, gentle, fragile and dying.

Passion is in conflict with duty, and it is in this conflict that Willy Decker turns upside down a deeply rooted prejudice against the fallen woman who by falling passionately in love shows that in the bosom of such a woman may well beat the heart of a noble princess.

Violeta suffers and cries, loves and dies, as such a princess. Bruised and hurt, humiliated and abandoned, she remains true to herself to her stellar substance; such is Violeta as Willy Decker sees her.

Thomas Hampson as father Germont, with his high-pressure bottled anguish and rigidity, delivered a well paced  and most remarkable character portrayal in singing this role.

The whirlwind of life is portrayed as a faceless crowd of uniformly dressed men holding champagne glasses swarming around her or looming over her head according to the libretto’s demands.

Willy Decker also reduces the stage relevance of ephemeral characters, such as Flora Bervoix or Annina, to the absolute minimum. On the other hand a new person on the stage, the personification of Death, is expanded into the permanent, silent presence of a mute and grim man. Brilliant.

One secret of this masterpiece production is the meticulously studied choreography. No single movement is left to arbitrary improvisation. The result of this serious study is that every single snapshot of this production may be easily considered to be a photograph of a Rene Magritte painting.

I hope that the marketing team of this production has realized that in the images of this La Traviata as posters lays a considerable potential for revenues.

La Traviata – an Italian take on the early 70-ties

February 28, 2010

An example of a well-modernized Traviata is the production of Robert Carsen, Conductor: Lorin Maazel, Violetta: Patrizia Ciofi Alfredo: Roberto Sacca; Germont: Alfredo’s father: Dmitri Hvorostovsky.

It was staged in Venice, in the theatre La Fenice where this opera had its première. It is fitted into the late 60s or early 70s, which is consistently reflected in the decor, costumes, hairstyles, etc. A creative playground for any production of Traviata is to see what they have done out of the gypsy song and matador dance. This Traviata is a wonderful counterpart to the famous film La Dolce Vita. (This film should be a part of the mandatory curriculum in schools if we as a species intend to have art survive in the post-industrial era). Mr. Carsen gives us a superb Las Vegas-burlesque, unbuttoned, liberally choreographed show on stage as his rendition of the gypsy and matador songs. It is perhaps more liberal than what taste would permit on the American continent even a few decades later. (May we be reminded that the “Last Tango in Paris” was over the limits of permissible freedom for the North American censors). This of course does not matter a bit for the smooth flow of this effervescent gig. I read somewhere that the theme of this Traviata is money. It would be an unfair simplification. It is much more than that. It is a testimony of an era the main feature of which may be social and sexual liberation and a sobering truth that some other old underlying laws remain in full effect. This Violetta is not a prostitute in a vulgar sense; socially she may well be an upscale woman, a star on the rise in an artistic field, or simply an aspiring young woman who does escort service as a part-time boost to her otherwise slim revenues. Maybe she has to pay the rent to be able to have this big chance in her life, which only a big city can offer. While the prelude is playing she is semmi-dressed in her dark green boudoir taking, or rather, snatching money from the passing men who are handing it to her. This symbolic scene suggests that prejudice and hesitation are dispensed with, and the nexus between the money and negotiated sex is right there. Alfredo is a photographer, a paparazzo. This detail is very well matched to the story. Patrizia Ciofi delivers her singing with a visible strain which may be hard for closeups, such as made available on the video recording, but somehow this strain works excellently for the role for one who makes a living of her own flesh. Her voice is sharp and accurate.  A scene in which Violetta has to endure the raging jealousy of Alfredo is delivered here with the chilling effect of a pain absorbed as a murderous blow to her heart  and condensed in Violetta’s absent-minded look into nothingness while she is slowly walking away from the place where she was humiliated by her beloved. Brava Patrizia Ciofi! This scene just goes to say how much in emotional effect may be extracted with a good staging acting and singing. In the production of Willy Decker La Traviata (which to my delight will soon be posted, so keep visiting this little blog!) we see at this point a nasty explicit scene of a domestic assault and physical abuse when Alfredo (Villazón) is shoving the money into Violetta’s (Netrebko) mouth and décolleté.

Roberto Saccà as Alfredo is correct but unremarkable, coming across as an agitated superficial and cute toy-boy for this Violetta, a mere catalyst to the tale of a drama awaiting sooner or later any woman who strays, hoping that she can outsmart the devil. Seen as a whole, such an Alfredo is perhaps the best and wisely made choice.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who is very dear to me, sings as always superbly. He  is camouflaged behind a pair of spectacles. He does not act or exaggerate anything. He sings with the fraction of his larynx & lungs with such an ease equal to, for example, the second gear of a turbo high-acceleration engine. Only when he sings Russian songs do I hear Hvorostovsky open up a bit to his mind-spinning singing capacities. We are yet to see him unleash the energy he is gifted with. For a while I was disappointed by his rather bland acting, but on second thought that subdued delivery of Alfredo’s father works well in the entire concept, leaving the space for the beginning of Violetta’s neurotic breakdown.

For me personally the greatest visual achievement in depicting Violetta’s demise is the opening scene of Act III where Ciofi lies on the floor covered with a fur coat, the snowy screen of a malfunctioning  TV set on the floor, an open, half-empty industrial size bag of cement next to the scaffold wall, beside the open bathroom door. A masterpiece! This image should be given to the fine arts students as an assignment in still life.

Green banknotes bills with the image of Giuseppe instead of Benjamin falling as autumn leaves are a sweet touch adding to the set of metaphors in this coherent and powerful production.

La Traviata – Angela Gheorghiu a rising star

February 26, 2010

Of all the traditional Traviatas in my humble consumer’s rating this, the one with young Angela Gheorghiu seen at the Royal Opera Covent Garden in 1994, is the best. Georg Solti, who died few years later and who conducted La Traviata for the first time, gave the orchestra a crisp, somewhat militant tone, with precision and edge more suitable for Mozart perhaps rather than Verdi. Angela Gheorghiu was 28 at that time and a spectacular rising star. She sings with a volume and passion that dominates the scene. Yet it is evident that behind the sheer energy of a perfect, powerful, unrestrained, cultivated voice there is still a great potential waiting to unfold in the coming years.   The first act is set in an oval-shaped wood-paneled salon consisting of a huge two-wing door and–apart from the central floral arrangement–an empty space. The emptiness serves well to emphasize the focus on the gorgeous period costumes and the singing. It is a perfect example of successfully combining a minimalist simplicity while remaining true to the period costumes. It is well centred without the attention-distracting china glassware and cutlery so often seen as inevitable props in the first act.  

The emotional edge is reached in the second act when Violetta realizes in disbelief that Alfredo’s father has come to ask her to relinquish what is most dear to her –Alfredo. There are definite moments when you can feel goose bumps, chills and thrills up and down your spine thanks to Angela Gheorghiu’s youth, ambition, confident surrender to soar with her feelings and God’s gift of an extraordinary voice of diamond clarity with the power of a steam-engine. The set, portraying a country house, evokes the serenity and simplicity of Vermeer’s ambient. Violetta’s dresses are designed and made with subtlety, ranging from delicate pastel shades of yellow, pigeon blue and beige to the glamorous femme-fatale crimson red, black lace décolleté  and gloves. Regrettably, Frank Lopardo as Alfredo is not equal in charisma and character to such a Violetta. Apart from vocal correctness he does not offer more, remaining invisible in Gheorghiu’s shadow throughout. Old Germont, Alfredo’s father, is a believable character well suited for this role.

The night atmosphere is constant except for the second act where the daylight freshness is brought up as a refreshing contrast. Viewed today, this production a decade and a half later, still stands out head and shoulders above other traditional productions I have seen in every aspect.

A decade and a bit later…

 

In 2007, thirteen years after her 1994 Covent Garden success, we see a mature and confident diva, Angela Gheorghiu, perhaps with a hint of agitation concealing the boredom of routine singing yet another Traviata, this time in one of the oldest opera houses, La Scala, of Milan. I guess that everything may wear out in life. Even the effect of being showered with frantic applauses after a few hours of intensive singing.  For this special occasion a reputable film director’s name, Liliana Cavani’s, appears in the credits. And that is more or less where it stays. There is nothing in this staging which reveals that a hand of a master is pulling the strings together. Everything is ordinary, already seen and uninventive. In Act Two the scene is cluttered with furniture and on the right-hand side stands a couch located so close to a billiard table that it annoys the spectator who would try to imagine anyone playing pool. Or is this dysfunctional furnishing arrangement perhaps a staging hint of Violetta’s glorious days of fun forever gone now? Unclear.  At one point there seems to be a purpose in the billiard table on the stage but even the video editing was poor.  If the intention was to show the neglect and decay the message did not come through. Attention is given to the costumes and the intent that no cost would be spared to make a great conventional production is visible. The Alfredo is sung by Ramón Vargas and is an unfortunate choice beside the imposing diva, who is glowing in her mature beauty and exuding the spirit of a woman whose best years have just passed. Mr. Vargas also fails to connect with Ms. Gheorghiu in creating the mutual dynamics and directs his emotional lines into an empty air. The emotional effect is not produced and it feels unconvincing and lacking in energy. Maybe if we close our eyes we may get more out of this production, because they are, after all, great voices.